The people’s business is none of our business
Politicians have always loved to keep the political process as shrouded in mystery as possible. But for a brief time, thanks to the increased use of computers, it seemed that technology would finally shine some needed sunlight on the political process. Due to the extensive virtual paper trails created by emails, and assisted by ever-improving search technology, what went on between government officials was opened up for public examination in new and unexpected ways.
But now, political figures are fighting back. As reports continually show, politicians are pushing to ensure that the people’s business is none of your business.
It was recently reported that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo refuses to use email. He sends and receives messages only by using a BlackBerry-to-BlackBerry messaging system that immediately deletes the message. No paper trail, no negative campaign ads based on anything he wrote in an email, which now even a Freedom of Information Request or an inopportune leak will not reveal. Cuomo has apparently also tried to “clean up” his records from his time as state attorney general, having aides remove key documents from view.
Cuomo is not the only elected official to clamp down on information being released to the public. Other politicians have refused to use the public email system and instead conduct all business through private emails – New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez recently admitted to such behavior. And even non-elected officials get into the act. The FDA has come under scrutiny because it was found to have been spying on scientists who were disclosing data to Congress.
Secrecy and deniability are long-cherished ideals for elected and appointed officials. One early 20th-century Boston pol, Martin Lomasney, came up with a much-quoted phrase: “Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink.” And one of the most important national political figures at the time was fabled Tammany Hall leader “Silent” Charlie Murphy.
In this silence, backroom deals – some grossly illegal, others just unethical – can be cut, and government money can be potentially wasted in new and innovative ways.
Fortunately laws have repeatedly been passed to pry open the doors of government. The Freedom of Information Act and similar laws on the state level were designed to ensure that elected officials could not just hide secrets forever. But that hasn’t stopped them from trying.
While we could hope for some different attitudes in an election season, we shouldn’t hold our breath. Fans of open government should look elsewhere in the race for president. The Obama administration has been noted for its harsh approach to any leaks or whistleblowers. According to the Times, the administration has prosecuted more leakers than all of its predecessors combined.
The other side of the aisle provides no more comfort. Romney’s tenure as Massachusetts governor ended with his administration blowing close to $100,000 of state money to replace computers in the office. It had top aides buy their own hard drives and emails erased from the state’s servers.
We need both a continual effort to create stronger laws pushing back against these practices and actual negative repercussions for politicians and their aides to prevent them hiding their decisions from the public. As technology advances, it is incumbent on voters and the public to hold politicians’ feet to the fire on open-access laws. Given half a chance, as we see from both parties in the presidential race, political figures will do everything in their power to make sure that the people’s business remains hidden from view.